MINNEAPOLIS — Cheesesteaks for everyone. Hoagies on every plate. It’s the City of Brotherly Shove now — defensive end Brandon Graham shoving the throwing arm of the great Tom Brady and popping the ball loose for the most unlikely conclusion to the most explosive Super Bowl in history.
“(His) arm was right there,” said Graham, “and I went for the ball.”
He got a lot more.
He got a championship.
That’s right. This is not a typo. Philadelphia, the team that had never won the Big Game, just beat the team that had won it five times — and they did it the way the Patriots usually do it, making the right play at exactly the right time. The final score was 41-33. But the score is just number. This was about being aggressive and staying aggressive, ignoring the champion’s glow, and embracing the challenger’s dismissal.
Mostly, this was about guts.
Yes. Guts. It’s an overused word in sports. But it wasn’t overused Sunday night, not when the Eagles were staring down the greatest dynasty in NFL history. They never blinked. They called upon those guts multiple times, with a trick play on fourth down at the end of the first half that went for a touchdown, and twice in the final minutes, once on offense, when they were a yard away from losing control, and once on defense, when Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, trotted out to do what everyone in the world thought he was going to do.
Except maybe the men in green.
“We got a great group of players, and we found a way to get it done,” said coach Doug Pederson, who designed a wickedly entertaining game plan against the Patriot defense — which was hardly a thing of beauty Sunday night, sorry Matt Patricia fans – and he never took his foot off the pedal. That’s how you beat New England. Maybe the only way.
“Against a great opponent you’ve got to make decisions and keep yourself aggressive,“ Pederson said.
Cheesesteaks for everyone.
A fourth-down call for the ages
How about this result? In a game that featured over 1,100 yards of offense — that’s not a typo, either — a game that saw Brady throw for 505 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, a game that was set up, perfectly, for a New England comeback in the final minutes, it was the Eagles, underdogs and underrated, bloodied and battle-weary, who came up with the plays when they most needed them.
Check that. They grabbed the plays when they most needed them.
It began on offense. Fourth-and-1, less than six minutes to go, Philly trailing 33-32 on their own 45-yard line. Had Pederson played it safe, he would have punted and hoped for another chance. That’s what the odds say. That’s what the book says.
But that’s not what Pederson’s instinct said. He’d seen enough of teams playing careful against New England. He’d seen — heck all of America had seen — teams punt the ball to Brady and never get it back.
So he gave the call. Go for it. The Eagles did. And Nick Foles, the former backup who almost quit the game, threw a rope to his most dependable receiver, tight end Zach Ertz, who was caught mid-air and driven back, but not before eking out the first down.
A 2-yard gain.
But it was more than that.
It was control.
“Coach showed a lot of faith in us with that,” Ertz said.
And he showed the Patriots, no matter what, the Eagles would not shrink. These were not the fading Atlanta Falcons of last year. This was not the temporary insanity of the Seattle Seahawks three years ago.
Pederson calling that play gave the Eagles confidence. They finished that drive seven plays later with a beautiful zip from Foles to — who else? — Ertz, 11 yards and a touchdown. The play was controversial, because the ball came loose after Ertz dove into the end zone. But he was ruled a runner at the time, not a receiver, so the infamous Calvin Johnson rules did not apply.
“If they had overturned that I don’t know what would have happened in the city of Philadelphia,” Ertz later told the media.
But the game was hardly over. A five-point lead with less than three minutes to go.
And here came Brady.
A new champion. A new team on the pedestal
This was where the second part of aggression came into play. And don’t think for a minute that the offense going for broke didn’t inspire the defense. To that point, the Eagles’ celebrated “D” had been paper thin, allowing the Pats and Brady to go 75 yards three straight times in the second half, all for touchdowns.
“We hadn’t done anything,” Graham would admit afterwards. “For us, it was all about one stop we had to make.”
The Eagles hadn’t had a sack all night. Graham would be the one to change that. Graham, of all people, a Detroit kid who left the University of Michigan for the NFL 10 years after Tom Brady did. On second-and-2, with 2:16 left. Brady stepped back in traffic, and Graham beat offensive lineman Shaq Wilson to get a hand on Brady’s arm, then the ball, stripping it to the ground, where it bounced up into grateful grasp of Derek Barnett, as Brady went to the ground and Philly fans went to the moon.
Graham and Barnett were mobbed by their Eagles’ teammates. Brady was left on his rear end, arms across his knees, as if watching a bus disappear down the street with no way to catch it.
Philadelphia had done it. They had stormed the magician’s stage, grabbed his wand, his hat, the rabbits. The Patriots had lost Super Bowls before, but not by Brady losing his mojo. The shame is, to that point, Brady was having a magnificent game, and was clearly on track for MVP honors should the game have ended the way nearly everyone expected.
But expectations have little to do with reality in sports. And it seems more and more, the greater the praise heaped on a champion, the more the challenger rises to the occasion.
In the end Sunday night, after the Eagles padded the lead with a field goal, it was Brady trying a desperation 49-yard heave to the end zone, intended for his miracle man Rob Gronkowski. It fell incomplete and the Pats fell off their pedestal, even as the Eagles ran onto theirs, as sure as Rocky ran the stairs of that art museum.
Fly, Eagles, fly.
How does this sound? Nick Foles, MVP
What a game — from start to finish. It was below zero outside U.S. Bank Stadium, and burning hot inside it. At one point, the booming loudspeakers played DMX’s “Party Up” and the famous lyrics “Y’all gonna make me lose my mind, up in here, up in here.”
And that’s how it felt. It was raining offensive miracles. One amazing play after another. An impossible catch. A laser throw. An over-the-shoulder bomb. A burst through the line and race to the end zone. It was an ESPN Top 10 but played out in real time. Highlight. Highlight. Astounding body control.
But above all else, it was mano a mano from the men behind the center. You can talk all you want about the other positions. If this Super Bowl proved anything, it was that, once again, the NFL is a quarterback’s game. And in the biggest game of the year, the two opposing gunslingers gave a dueling performance that was almost worth the ridiculous price of a Super Bowl ticket — maybe even the price of a scalped one.
It was awesome and head-shaking and at times it made you grin despite yourself. But what made it most remarkable is that, while you expected this from Brady, you didn’t expect Foles to be his match.
“I never felt I had to be Superman on this team,” Foles said.
But Sunday, in many ways, he was. His numbers didn’t quite match Brady’s, but his moxie did. And so did his timing. The Eagles, behind Foles, converted 10 of 16 third downs and 2 of 2 fourth downs. They held the ball for more than 34 minutes, over eight minutes more than New England. And Foles, ever calm in the storm, was their ringmaster.
“He’s always poised and he’s always ready to make plays,” said Philly wide receiver Nelson Agholor.
He was also the best story on the field, a quarterback who bounced around college, bounced around the pros, almost quit the NFL altogether, and was only playing in this Super Bowl because the starter and MVP candidate, Carson Wentz, got injured in December. Back then, when Foles first took over the offense, he had been so mediocre, that by Christmas, the official football symbol in Philly was the teardrop.
But then Foles rallied. Pederson and the coaching staff reconfigured the offense to play to his strengths, particularly run/pass options. Foles played well in the second half against Atlanta in the divisional round, and he was sparkling good in the NFC championship, ripping apart the vaunted Minnesota defense for three touchdowns and a 38-7 win.
Still, conference titles are not championships. And while Super Bowls have been won with less-than-stellar quarterbacks and even a couple of backups, that hadn’t happened a lot recently, reflecting the current pass-dependent nature of the NFL.
Five years ago, the Ravens did it with Joe Flacco. Before that, you’d have to go back to Tampa Bay’s Brad Johnson in 2003 to find a Super Bowl winner whose quarterback won’t have a shot at the Hall of Fame.
Well, guess who just won the MVP of the Super Bowl?
“There was a time when I was thinking about hanging up the cleats,” Foles admitted after the win. “I think, as people, we deal with struggles. And that was a moment in my life where I thought about it and I prayed about it. I’m grateful I made the decision to come back and play.”
Yeah. So are a few million folks around Market Street, Chestnut Street, the Liberty Bell and William Penn’s statue.
Nick Foles, Super Bowl MVP.
Soft pretzels for everybody.
The bravest team won
A word here about the New England defense — because its coordinator, Patricia, is expected to be announced Monday as the Lions’ new head coach. What can you say? It was not good. It didn’t just surrender yards, it surrendered huge chunks of them. It didn’t just surrender points, it surrendered touchdowns. Patricia’s D was supposed to be bend-but-don’t-break?
Forty-one points? Over 500 yards surrendered? Tackles were missed. Coverage was sloppy. And now and then, they just didn’t see things coming. Never was this more true than what may have been — after the Graham strip sack — the biggest moment of the game.
In the final minute of the first half, Philly, up 15-12, had a fourth down on the New England 1. The safe thing, again, would be to go for a field goal. Take a six-point lead into halftime.
But they didn’t. Pederson sent the offense back out. Go for a touchdown? Against New England? That’s like spitting in a killer’s eye. Like jumping on a bear’s toe.
But that’s how you beat the best. Aim for the jugular. It’s what Brady and Bill Belichick usually do at the end of first halves.
Instead, it was the Eagles. A play was called. And what a play. Foles lined up near center, then slid over as the snap went to running back Corey Clement, who handed it to back up tight end Trey Burton, who threw it back to — are you sitting down? — Foles in the end zone.
He caught it sure-handedly, and the stadium came unglued. (By the way the Lions ran this play for Matthew Stafford in the season finale against Green Bay. It didn’t have quite the same meaning.)
“We hit it at the right time,” Foles said, understating by a mile. By making that grab, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw and catch a touchdown in a Super Bowl. More importantly, he’d just succeeded at something Brady had tried and failed at earlier in the half, on a piece of sneakery that saw a pass from Danny Amendola graze off Brady’s fingers in what would have been a huge gain.
Guts. Execution. On such things do games turn, and on such games do crowns change hands. Brady and New England were proven mortal after all.
And a new king of the NFL in on the throne.
As someone who grew up there, I can tell you this is huge for Philadelphia. They’ve had World Series winners, Stanley Cup winners, even a couple of NBA titles with Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 and Dr. J in 1983. But the Eagles? Never.
Philadelphia, like Detroit, is more of a football town than outsiders realize, partly because the perennial lack of a title keeps hysteria tamped down and negativity always at the ready.
Not anymore. The Eagles just won the greatest offensive game in Super Bowl history. Even the folks who booed Santa Claus have to be smiling. Have a Tastykake, Philly. Hoist a Schlitz. But when you remember this game, remember the bravest team won.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.